Bridging The Kawarau Falls

The new Kawarau Falls bridge.

Kawarau Dreams and Nightmares

If you’re a tourist, or new to Queenstown you probably sweep over the new Kawarau Falls bridge without giving it a second thought.

But I never take it for granted. In fact, I’m still pinching myself to check that it’s real.

Why?

Because trying to cross the old one-way bridge used to be a nightmare.

For years we called it a bridge, but the old girl was actually a dam.  Although, she never quite managed to stop the river water flowing.

Here’s how it happened.

There’s Gold In That River

Back in the day, there was gold galore around Queenstown. Some made fortunes — others lost everything. But, like we do today, people were always on the lookout for the next big thing.

Further down the Kawarau River miners worked hard to pan the alluvial gold. But many were convinced that there was a fortune in gold-bearing rock on the riverbed.

Unfortunately, the river was always too full and fast to get it out.

Someone had a bright idea. “Let’s dam the falls,” they suggested. “The water level will fall. Then we’ll get the gold.”

What could possibly go wrong?

So, in 1924, they began building 10 massive gates between sturdy concrete pillars over the Kawarau Falls. The engineers planned to get the job done in months but that was never a realistic target. In reality, the dam took two years to build.

Actually, I think two years was a pretty good effort. With all today’s modern equipment it seemed to take an eternity to build our newest bridge.

In August, 1926 the great day arrived.  

In front of a huge crowd of spectators engineers lowered the gates and the river level dropped… but not for long.

A ‘Dammed’ Expensive Mistake

Somehow, in the rush for gold the engineers had forgotten a rather important fact. Downstream was the equally gold-rich Shotover River busily emptying all its water into the Kawarau.

So, it didn’t take long for the Shotover to fill up the riverbed once more.

Imagine their dismay when the river only dropped a metre which was nowhere near enough to get the gold.

Reluctantly, the engineers admitted defeat. They raised the gates and the Kawarau River flowed free once more.

As a dam, it was a costly failure, but it had a silver lining. At last, there was an easy link between Frankton and the rich farming country to the south.

The old Kawarau Falls Dam
The old Kawarau Falls dam and bridge, taken from the lakeside trail.

Traffic Flows and Traffic Woes

So now it made sense to build a road around the lake to Kingston. In 1936 that road was finished and the dam took on a new role.

It was never intended to be crossed by cars and trucks. So we’ll have to give a shout out to the dam’s designers, engineers and maintenance crews. Because cars, campervans, trailers and trucks all crossed over that dam bridge every day for 92 more years.

But it was hell to use in rush hour.

Then, the traffic inched along without a break. Bad luck if you were going against the flow. I’ve been stuck there a long time waiting for someone to stop and let me across.

Eventually, the powers-that-be installed some traffic lights.

They were a mixed blessing. Sure it was easier to cross in busy times – but it made your blood boil to be staring at a red light when NOTHING was coming the other way.

Even tales of woe have their funny side.

Most locals have a story to tell about driving over the old bridge. I happened to meet a friend out walking one day, and he told me a funny old tale.

Not so long before he retired, Ivan — an Athol farmer of many years —  drove himself up the snowy road to the High Country Farmers Winter Conference.

But, as he crossed the narrow bridge his old car skidded on the slippery boards.

Luckily he didn’t crash through the rails and into the river.

Unluckily, the car stopped dead: neatly wedged across the middle of the one-way bridge. Oops!

Long lines of traffic banked up as far as the eye could see on both sides of the bridge while shivering rescuers worked to free our unfortunate farmer.

Bad enough to have an accident, but worse was to come.

Next day, newspaper reports told of emergency services rushing to rescue the elderly man whose car had caused the delay.

Ivan was mortified about skidding, and sheepish about all the fuss. But mostly he was furious at the reporter who dared to call him ELDERLY.

Finally They Began The New Bridge

In 2016 McConnell Dowell started the sweeping new bridge. And we discovered a whole new level of traffic-jam-pain.

If your trip was early or late — you’d be fine. But, at peak times you had two options.

1) Leave an hour early… OR

2) Get caught in a traffic jam.  

At least the locals were forewarned. Sitting in the queue I used to wonder how many unwary travellers had missed their flights because they were stuck on the bridge?

We waited and watched through the months as the new bridge slowly took shape.

Trees were felled. Temporary decks came and went. They drilled piles… built piers… rolled out new decking and finally — FINALLY — on May 10th, 2018 they took all the cones and barriers away. At last we could drive, unobstructed, over our brand new bridge.

However, the historic dam was being restored too — and there was still plenty of work to finish. Resurface the deck. Strengthen and paint. Build underpasses and paths to connect everything together. Slowly, it all came together.

It Was Worth The Pain

It felt like forever, but finally everything is finished.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all the people who dedicated long hours to getting this momentous job done and dusted!

One fine April day I wandered over the two bridges — old and new — to see how things have changed.

Cyclists riding on the underpass of the new Kawarau Falls Bridge

This new underpass makes it a breeze for cyclists to cross under the bridge.
Bike Trail beside the Kawarau river.

From the Frankton side the underpass leads onto a narrow above the river. A few minutes ride will take you onto the Queenstown Cycle Trail.
View from under the new Kawarau Falls Bridge

On the south side, the underpass goes right down to river level.
Spectacular view of the old and new bridges.

I discovered a little winding path up the hill towards Kelvin Heights. It leads to a lookout which gives a spectacular view of the two bridges.

It was fun discovering all the old and new additions to this part of the Queenstown Trails. If you’ve got an hour to spare, why not give it a go yourself.

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The Old Apple Tree

There’s nothing quite like crunchy, crisp apples straight from the tree. But if you ask your great-granny about her youth, I guarantee she’ll say, “Apples tasted better back then.”

And it’s true!


Since the 20th century we’ve let many old varieties of fruit and vegetables slip quietly into oblivion — and with them have gone taste… aroma…and diversity. Count up how many different apple names you can see on the supermarket shelves. You might see six, but years ago there would have been dozens throughout the country.

It’s both sad and dangerous for the environment that we’ve lost so much plant diversity in the last hundred years. That’s why we treasure the oldest tree on our farm.

Mystery

In a quiet gully, far from prying eyes, stands an old apple tree.

Why is she there, far from the houses and sheds on the farm?

The now-dry creek used to wash down through the paddocks and home orchards on the terraces above. Perhaps an apple tumbled downstream, or a bird deposited a seed as it flew by?

However it happened, a seed sprouted and against all the odds, our tree thrived. How long she’s been there no-one can say but she’s old in New Zealand apple-tree-years, make no mistake about that.

An ancient apple tree, grows alone in a farm gully.
The old apple tree nestles in a gully, far from prying eyes.

A Special Apple Tree

But it’s not just the isolation, nor even her age that makes our old girl special, for she is a heritage tree. Because she has grown from seed this tree is actually unique — the only one of her kind in the world. You can’t be more special than that.

And her apples are beautiful; cooking apples like your great-grandparents grew. Raw they are tart on your taste buds, but cooked they turn fluffy, sweet and delicious. You might find apples like these in a farmer’s market, but never on the supermarket shelves.

Apples on the tree on a rainy day.

Our family loves this old apple tree, and when we climb up the gully each year at harvest time there’s a niggle of worry at the back of my mind.

“What if a fire raced unexpectedly down the dry gully? Would we lose her if disease struck? Even trees succumb eventually to old age…”

The world is losing its unique plants and animals at an alarming rate. I would hate for our old tree to join that list.

And yet, we may have worried, but year after year we stayed stuck in procrastination mode, until one day we met Riverton’s famous tree-saving duo.

Tree-Saviours Arrive On The Farm

Robert and Robyn Guyton are passionate permaculturalists and have developed their once-gorse-covered Riverton property into a food farm which supplies most of their daily needs. They are also the guiding lights behind the Riverton Environmental Centre and are well known in Southland for their conservation efforts and their enthusiasm about saving trees.

One windy, wet Sunday in early spring, Robert and Robyn decided to explore the old orchards around the Garston area. Our son Chris found them peering at some trees near the woolshed.

“These trees aren’t bad,” he told them, waving his hand around the nearby orchard, “but would you like to see the best tree on the farm?”

Of course they would. So he drove them up the gully to the quiet old tree.

So that’s how it came about that when Terry and I drove home from church that Sunday morning, we discovered Robert, Robyn and Chris all dripping wet and happily stowing cuttings into their car.

“What a find!” the Guytons smiled.

Robyn Shields

One of the Guytons’ missions is to train other people up in the art of tree-saving. So they passed the cuttings onto Robyn Shields, a former student of theirs, who lives not far from Queenstown.

Robyn Shields photographing the heritage apples.
Robyn Shields photographing apples from our heritage tree.

Robyn’s always loved old things so the idea of saving plants that might otherwise disappear for good immediately attracted her interest.

Naturally, she was keen to learn how to graft trees from the Guytons as part of their programme aimed at saving Southland heritage apple trees. In fact, the idea combined Robyn’s two favourite passions: gardening and antiques.

Not long ago the Shields were immersed in running a busy paua shell and souvenir business in Riverton but when they retired to Queenstown, Robyn ‘seized the day’ and set up a tree-saving haven in her backyard.

Grafting Baby Apple Trees

To get a true replica of an apple tree you need a cutting — or scion —  from the new growth of your original tree, and a rootstock to graft it onto.

Rootstocks come from trees that are particularly hardy and disease-resistant. They’ll ensure that the new tree has well-developed roots and a good uptake of nutrients. The rootstock also determines the size of the new tree and you can find ones from dwarf all the way up to vigorous (which are likely to be huge.)

When the new growth has hardened up — usually in late winter — Robyn takes cuttings from the old tree, pops them in the fridge and ensures that she’s got enough rootstock growing in her nursery.

When spring arrives it’s time to graft the scion.

First, Robyn carefully makes a split in the top centre of the rootstock stem. The next step involves shaving the bottom of the scion into a wedge and inserting it into the split. She tapes the two together with a special tape which will wear off over time.

Our Baby Heritage Trees

When I went to visit Robyn this summer she showed me a group of splendid, year-old saplings from our tree,. They’re growing strong and straight in her nursery garden.

Heritage apple tree saplings in growing in Robyn Shield's tree nursery.

Interestingly, these saplings are hardy, and appear to be particularly resistant to insect damage. The weather had been warm and wet and Robyn’s garden was plagued with aphids, but there was not one to be found on our young apple trees.

In winter it will be time for the trees to move on from their protected nursery, so we’ve got until then to decide where to plant them on the farm.

Looking Ahead

Now that Robyn’s got the tree-saving bug she hopes to be able to replicate other rare fruit trees around the Queenstown area.

After all, there are remnants of old orchards which date back to Queenstown’s gold mining days — especially out in isolated areas such as Macetown, or closer to civilisation at the Chinese Settlement restoration in Arrowtown.

Of course, Robyn would need permission from DOC and other organisations before she can work in those sorts of places. But she is allowed to plant some of her newly-produced trees in a designated area around the lower Shotover. In the future, that could mean that some rarer fruit is available for all to enjoy.

Thanks Are Due

The English and Scottish settlers who came to Southland and Otago brought many trees from their homelands. They have adapted to New Zealand conditions and have now become unique to us.

In these days of mass production where plant diversity is plummeting in the world, it’s wonderful to have people who care enough to work to preserve nature in all its many diverse forms.

Thank you Robyn, Robyn and Robert for your work to preserve our own little slice of apple tree history.

Black bucket full of heritage cooking apples.
A bucket of heritage apples picked last April, ready to be cooked for meal-time goodness.

Autumn on the farm is such a busy season. The men are busy harvesting the grain but I’m focused on gathering all the other food that nature is providing. My 2018 “Autumn Harvest On The Farm” series is a celebration of nature’s bounty and the foresight of the farmers who began developing this farm more than 100 years ago.

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Making Hay While The Sun Shines

Summer is haymaking season on the farm and I love to reflect on how making hay has changed over the years. We still use dried grass but our ancestors wouldn’t believe how we can make hay now.

The tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob in perfect, sunny haymaking conditions.
Terry’s Massey-Ferguson tractor fluffing up rows of hay with the hay-bob.
Our farming ancestors would be so impressed with how easy this is. 

The Easy Way To Make Hay

At its simplest, hay is just dried grass stored for the winter. Cousin Matt, with just five sheep to feed, has haymaking down to a fine art.

At some point during the summer, when he’s cutting a paddock of hay down that way, Terry will run the mower along the grass verges near Matt’s house.

A few days later when the long grass has dried Matt simply picks it up and dumps it into large sacks (called fadges). Hey, presto! Winter feed is done and dusted.

But of course when you have 3000+ mouths to feed the process becomes a bit more complicated.

Back In The Day

Once upon a time, skilled farm-hands would have cut a paddock of long grass with sickles — those wicked-looking long curved, super-sharp blades. Others would follow behind and hand-spread it to dry.

A few days later, the hay was pitchforked into huge piles called rucks.

It was all slow going and hugely labour intensive. No wonder that farmers began to embrace the new technology of tractors and hay-makers when it began to surface.

Working the stationary hay baler at the Vintage Machinery day in Garston, February 2019.
John and Graham Petersen demonstrating hay making using an early stationary baler at the Garston Vintage Machinery Day, February 2019.
Farmers would have towed a “sweeper” behind a horse to gather up piles of hay and dump it beside the baler. The strings are threaded between each bale with a giant metal needle, then tightened and tied by hand. This process needed at least four people: one to fork the hay, one either side to tie the strings, and one to drive the horse.
And don’t forget the cook at home making the mountains of food needed to fuel all the workers.

Square Baling On The Move

By the time I came onto the farming scene, haymaking had become rather more sophisticated. One person could mow the grass with a tractor and mower, turn it over with a tedder or a hay rake, and tie it up with a baler which moved with the tractor. (Nowadays we call them square bales, although of course, they’re not actually square at all.)

The Tedder - a long, angled machine with 6 wheels and multiple tines which turn the hay over to dry.
The tedder runs behind a tractor. The tines on those six wheels are constantly scooping up the hay and turning it over to dry underneath.

The baler pumped out the bales and dropped them onto the ground ready to be stacked. Usually we towed a gatherer behind which slid the bales along the paddock until there were enough to make a stack.

My job was building the stacks. No need for a gym membership in those days  — freshly-made bales made great weights! And of course, since the finished stacks were always head-height, I needed an extra bit of oomph to heave the last bales on top.

A temporary stack of 13 hay bales in the paddock.
A temporary stack like this is the perfect size for a tractor to pick up with a clamp and cart back to the hay shed. The bales would be re-stacked inside the shed, to keep them safe and dry till winter. If rain was threatening, we would tie a cover over the top to protect the bales until they could be shifted. 

Introducing The Sledge aka “The Man-Killer”

Another way to build the stacks was on a sledge which towed along directly behind the baler. You stood on the sledge and picked up each heavy bale as it pumped out of the machine. Relentlessly, every 10 seconds, another bale to lift and stack. No wonder we groaned when the sledge came out.

Hamish and Peter Naylor just happened to be baling small bales the other day.  
You can imagine how tiring this process can be when you have to stack a whole paddock’s worth of bales using the sledge.

Rain Covers

“Grab the covers,” ordered Terry. “It’s going to rain.”

So I dropped everything and loaded the car up with the dusty covers piled in a corner of the workshop. (In later years I had to add kids and the latest baby as well.)

Nowadays, there’s not the same panic if it rains; the big modern round bales are reasonably waterproof. But the small bales would rot if they got wet so we had to protect them if we didn’t want to lose the lot.

There’s an art to covering a stack in the quickest time possible — and sometimes we did have to be quick! I lost count of the times we had to dash down to the hay paddock because of looming rain clouds.

Working together, two people could cover a stack and dash onto the next in a couple of minutes and it was actually pretty fun to race the rain.  

Folding — and unfolding — the covers correctly so that they were quick to use was one of the first things I learned on the farm. I can still almost do it in my sleep.

A tractor takes a clamp full of hay bales up to the hay shed where the men are waiting to stack them in their permanent home.
Photo courtesy of Peter and Pam Naylor.
You can see how the stack of 13 bales fits perfectly into the tractor clamp. This is easier than tossing each bale from the truck up into the hay shed by hand, as we sometimes had to do.

Keeping Up With The Times — Technology Moves On

But although haymaking had become easier and faster than those earlier times, we still needed a lot of hands on deck to make it happen. Nowadays, just as winter feeding out has become a one-man-band, Terry can also make the hay all by himself.

Cutting the Hay

Modern mowers are huge, noisy and fast. Ours is by no means the latest model, but it can still turn a huge paddock into long, flat rows of mown grass in just a few hours.

Turning the Hay

If the weather-gods are kind and the sun shines bright, the grass will be ready to turn in a day or two. Often, the rows are so thick that the grass dries on top, but stays wet underneath. Then we have to turn them over (called tedding.).

Later, he’ll go round again with a “haybob” which fluffs up the hay and puts it into defined rows which are easy for the baler to pick up.

Ready to Bale

In a few days, the hay will be ready to bale, and that’s when the big round baler swings into action. (Of course just as the “square bales” aren’t really square, “round bales” are actually cylinders. Who knows how they came to be called round?)

So, around the paddock we go for the 4th time. This time the baler chomps up the fluffy rows of grass and spits the hay bale out the back like a hen laying an egg.

A hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.
The hay baler opens to release a large round bale of hay.

Each bale is the equivalent of a whole stack of square bales and there’s no stacking or stooking to do. The tractor simply picks up the round bales and carts them off to the hay shed.

A Bountiful Summer

In Garston, we have to feed our stock in winter. There are months and months where the grass doesn’t grow, and our sheep depend on hay, balage and grain to survive.

And the weather in spring and summer is a crucial factor in the cycle of winter feed.

This year we’ve been blessed with plenty of rain — but not so much that we’re drowning in it. There’s plenty of grass in the paddocks, and lots to spare for haymaking.

Last summer — in the middle of our two-year drought — Terry managed to shut off two paddocks for hay and their yield was miserly. One paddock managed a measly 19 bales in total. Yesterday that same paddock yielded 19 in just two rounds.

What a difference! It may be hard to please a farmer when it comes to the weather, but this year I reckon we’ve come pretty close.

The lush clover, grass and chicory paddock close up.
This paddock of clover, grass and chicory produced lots of beautiful, nutritious hay this year.


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Weather Matters on the Farm

Is The Weather Changing?

There is still fierce opposition in some quarters about whether the weather is changing and the whole climate change debate.

It seems to me that humankind has indisputably contributed to the raised carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And don’t get me started on plastic mountains in the ocean! Or how we’re chopping down our rainforests.

Whether or not you agree with climate change, we really need a radical overhaul in the way we treat our environment — local, national and planet-wide.

This week I took a look back at some memorable weather moments on the farm in Garston. Snow, rain, wind, storms, droughts and of course many, many lovely days. We’ve had them all and more in the 35 years I’ve lived in this beautiful place.

View over snow-covered mountainside and farm paddocks in Garston, winter, 2015.
Wintry weather over the farm in Garston, 2015. 

Weather And Water

Last Summer was a hot, dry one. The faithful stream which feeds our farm and two houses dwindled to a trickle. Day after day the sun beat down, the thirsty sheep drank more water than ever, and the pool which feeds our precious water pipe came within an inch of failing.

Dry weather took it's toll. Our farm's water supply creek, reduced to a trickle in January 2018.
Just a trickle left in our precious creek. January 2018.

But Spring this year has been the opposite: sun — sure — but also wind, snow and so much rain! Our lovely stream is transformed from trickle to torrent. Now instead of drying up, our water pipe is in danger of being washed away.

Water supply creek in flood, November 2018.
The trickle has changed to a torrent. November 2018.

When you work outside the weather plays a huge part in your life. You’re at the mercy of the elements day in, day out. And no one is quite so vulnerable to the whims of the weather gods as a farmer.

Weather Varies Throughout The Valley

When glaciers carved out the Upper Mataura Valley in the last ice age they left a narrow river valley and a series of terraces rising up towards the mountain ranges which line the valley east and west. This formation gives the weather gods plenty of ways to play their tricks.

It’s only a small valley by world standards, but the weather in one part can be completely different from what’s happening in another. I well remember one desperate summer when day after day afternoon rain bands swept up the valley floor but left our farm on the terraces parched.

That was the year that we put a mob of sheep out on the back road every day so they could graze the roadside while we guarded them and warned the occasional car that drove by. We even tried cutting down willow branches to give them some extra greenery to eat that summer.

A Hailstorm! Where?

1991, early evening. Thunderclouds covered the mountains and loomed above our little farmhouse. Windows rattled and the house shook as thunder pealed overhead. Goodness knows where Terry was – somewhere out on the farm. But the kids and I didn’t know whether to dance in the rain or cower under the bed.

Then came the hailstones. I’ve never seen anything like it. They poured in torrents and formed a fountain shooting down the carport roof and off the end of the gutter pipes.

I was due at a school meeting but I phoned Kitty (from the next door farm) who was coming to babysit.

“Don’t come yet ” I yelled down the phone line.

“I’m not going anywhere in this,” she hollered back.

Then, just like that, the hail stopped. So Kitty braved the slick road round to our place and I dashed down to Garston school. Just three kilometres away, and not a hailstone in sight. No wonder they were disbelieving when I said why I was late.

Etched In Our Memories

But none of those weather memories can compare to the wall of water which swept out Blackmore Creek and down the road towards our two thousand sheep and lambs one fateful summer evening.

Stormy weather looms. Storm clouds brewing over Garston.
Storm clouds brewing late on a hot afternoon.

January 2001. It was a hot, hazy day — and we had spent it bringing sheep and lambs down to the holding paddocks beside the woolshed, ready for weaning the next morning.

It’s quite a tricky job — lambs and ewes are notoriously hard to move. While the majority of them will run where you want them to, there are always lambs which bolt in the opposite direction — and ewes that are determined to search back through the mob for their missing lambs.

However, by evening the woolshed paddocks were filled with a great noisy mass of sheep and lambs. Gradually they settled enough to eat and to drink from Blackmore Creek, which winds through our farm on its way to the Mataura River.

On this fateful day, towering storm clouds had built up over the mountains as they often do on hot afternoons. Thunder rumbled occasionally but no rain fell on the milling mob of sheep and lambs and we were pleased about that. A thunderstorm over the outside yards would have meant we’d be working with drenched sheep and slippery mud the next day.

Flash Flood

By 8 o’clock the clouds over the mountains were thick and black. It was clearly teeming up there. Most of us were just relieved it wasn’t pouring on the sheep but Terry was nervous. He could hear a rumbling in the hills that I didn’t even notice.

Abruptly — for no reason that I could see — he dashed out of the house and headed to the hill paddock above our house where he could spot the creek as it came down the mountain.

Casually we watched, wondering why he was driving up there. Suddenly his truck spun around and shot back down the paddock at high speed. At the gate, Terry leapt out, dashed towards his dogs and yelled at me —  “Get help! There’s a flood on the way!”

Action time!

Down to the woolshed we dashed with one purpose in mind — to get the sheep away from the creek paddocks and onto higher ground.

Chaos reigned: dogs barking, kids screaming, sheep bleating and Terry yelling orders which no one heard. Suddenly into this confusion burst Andrew — the neighbour I’d called for help — bringing more dog-power and urgency. He had come dashing down ahead of the flood and he’d seen the wall of water sweeping down the narrow gully towards us.

Minutes later the last animal was hustled through the gate onto the hill above the woolshed. James, his new partner Lizette — making her first visit to the farm — and 7-year-old Chris dashed across the bridge in their truck seconds before the wave broke across it.

On it swept, spreading across the paddocks, inundating gardens and flooding the State Highway as it crashed its way towards the Mataura River.

1 km north, Scotts Creek was flooding too, leaving its farmers equally stunned. And yet, in the whole valley, these were the only two streams affected. All the water in that intense thunderstorm was concentrated in one narrow band — flooding the two streams and leaving every other waterway untouched.

What A Mess

You wouldn’t believe the mess that a flood leaves behind. Our road and all its culverts were washed out. The fences were piled high with torn branches, bushes and mud. The water swept away everything in its path and left it high and dry on all our fences. It took weeks of effort to clear the mess away. And more weeks to repair the damage.

Fences piled high with debris after the flash flood. Garston 2001.
Fences piled high with debris outside the woolshed. As you can probably guess, we postponed the weaning for a week that year.

Andrew’s water system on Blackmore Creek was destroyed — but not ours, thank goodness.

For weeks afterwards the kids and I wandered up and down Blackmore Creek and marvelled at the path of destruction. The mud-covered bushes high above showed just how far that wave had reached.

Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached.
Brown vegetation high above the creek bed shows where the wave reached. We are so thankful for the warning rumble that alerted Terry to the potential disaster.

Farmers Are NEVER Happy With The Weather

My farmer lives and breathes the weather. He is always out in it, rain…hail…snow…wind…sunshine, and so are his animals and crops.

As you can imagine, it’s not a lot of fun for a sheep out in the wet and cold. We have sheltering trees and bushes in most of the paddocks, and of course, they have their woolly coats for protection, but they still look miserable in the sodden paddocks on a rainy day.

However, too little rain is equally bad. When the dry weather goes on and on the ground dries out and the grass doesn’t grow. The sheep lie panting under the trees and are constantly looking for food.

Even when I think the weather is perfect, something will be wrong with it from a farmer’s point of view. Inevitably that nice drop of rain in a dry year seems to come just after we’ve cut the grass for hay.

In a really good year (weather-wise) I’ve even heard farmers muttering about “too much grass” on occasion.

Weather Matters

When I first came to the valley way back in 1981 I used to phone home to Auckland on an expensive toll call once a month.

When I hung up my landlady would always say “What’s the weather like up there?”

Well, that wasn’t a question I ever thought of asking. Still very much a city chick, the weather wasn’t important to me back then. But nowadays, I’ve lived so long on the farm that I understand just how much the weather matters.

I don’t phone home much these days — but thanks to the world wide web I message my Mum daily, and you can be sure that now we always mention the weather.

Blue sky and sunshine weather. The view South overlooking the green farm in late spring.
But still, often the weather is beautiful.  And the valley looks green and lush after all that rain.  November 2018.

And Your Weather Is…?

I often thankfully remark that whatever the weather gods are throwing at us in Garston, its always far worse somewhere else in New Zealand. Our weather is mild and kind compared to the extremes some of you face in the world every year.

What are your best and worst weather memories? Comment below – and/or share a photo on Time of my Life’s Facebook page.


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Winter Memories: Feeding Out On The Farm

Highland cattle eating hay

Highland cattle eating hay
Our pet highland cattle love their hay. Photo courtesy of Jenny McNamee.

Winter is an interesting season on the farm. It gets cold down here in the South. Not frigid like Siberia, or Alaska of course, but chilly by New Zealand standards. The grass doesn’t grow much in winter and feeding out takes up a big part of the farmer’s day. Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it is today.

These days Terry can handle the feeding out by himself. The tractor. a feed-out machine and our new, automated grain bin are all he needs to be a one-man-band. But it hasn’t always been that way.

The Bales Were Smaller Back Then

When I first came to the farm, feeding out was a two-person job. Instead of the mammoth-sized round bales of today, we used to make the hay in rectangular bales tied with twine. These were small enough for one person to lift by hand.

We kept the hay dry in big barns which were dotted around the farm. There was an art to stacking it — the bales had to be interlocked so that the whole stack felt solid and wasn’t in danger of falling apart while you climbed on it.

Small hay bales stacked in a hay barn
Small hay bales in a hay barn. Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Loading The Hay

Every day we would drive the red Land Rover truck up to a hay barn and load the hay onto its flat deck. Once again, we had to carefully interlock the bales as we stacked them — often higher than the cab. It was quite easy to lose your footing and fall off the back as the truck bounced along. Having a heap of bales tumble on top of you made the fall much worse.

I learned that the hard way one day when the hay, two kids and I all came off the deck. Fortunately, it happened in slow motion and no one was hurt. I was much more careful with my hay-stacking-technique after that.

Farm truck stacked with small bales, surrounded by sheep.
Farm truck stacked with small bales, surrounded by sheep waiting anxiously for feeding out to begin. Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Feeding Out 

Once the bales were loaded, we would set off to feed a mob of sheep. One of us drove, while the other balanced precariously on top of the hay bales ready to feed the sheep. The job wasn’t too difficult.

First, you cut the string of the hindmost bale with a sharp pocket knife then tossed wads of hay out to the milling sheep below. Usually, it easily separated into sections and wasn’t hard to throw down.

As soon as the first bale was gone, you cut the strings of the second one, stuck the open knife in the bale behind so it didn’t get lost, and started throwing hay again.

There was an art to it of course:

    1. Cut the strings just after the knot and hold the knotted ends in your left hand.
    1. Feed out with your right hand.
  1. When all the bales are gone, knot the strings together in a tidy loop as you nonchalantly balance on the empty deck, while the truck heads for the gate.

Freezing Fingers and Toes

Once out of the paddock, we jumped off the deck and shut the gate with freezing fingers. It was a relief to hop into the warm cab while the truck returned to the shed to pick up the next load.

It was difficult to find the best gloves for the job. Certainly, thick, sturdy ones were no good. I couldn’t handle the knife if the gloves were too thick. However, woollen gloves quickly wore out, and I went through several pairs each winter. Even the holey ones were better than nothing, but they did get soaked when you fed out in the rain.  

Oh yes, this wasn’t a fine-weather job. Just like the postman, we were out in all weather. It didn’t matter if it was raining, snowing or just a hard frost, the sheep had to be fed.

Close up of sheep eating lucerne bale.
Ewes eating some lucerne (a nutritious alternative to grass hay.) Photo Lyn McNamee

Adding In The Grain

In July we added grain to the feeding out routine.

The grain bin was a huge, heavy affair, with two compartments. The grain poured into it through a tricky-to-start augur in the grain silo. Fortunately, it held enough barley or oats to feed several mobs of sheep before having to be refilled, so you only had to do that once a day.

One person could manage on his own, but it was a precarious and dangerous task. It was much safer to feed the grain with two people on the job.

The Driver…

Terry usually drove the truck, slowly towing the bin around the paddock at exactly the right speed. He had to be especially careful only to drive on firm ground. Parts of the paddocks got very wet over winter, and it paid to know which bits were safe to drive on, and which parts would get you bogged.

And She Who Ran Behind

My job was to open the slot at the bottom of the bin so that the grain fell onto the ground. I would pull a handle sticking out from the bottom end of the bin, and the whole slot would open. Then I either trotted behind the truck and bin or leapt up onto the towbar and rode until it was time to close things down.

This was easier said than done. Sheep love grain even more than hay, and they mobbed the bin well before we even started feeding it out. I had to carefully check the flow of grain too. There had to be consistent flow so that each sheep got the right amount to eat.

That depended on how fast the truck was moving and how far I had managed to open the slot. Sometimes the grain was sticky and I had to climb on top of the bin (while it was still moving) and poke it down the hole.

The Hardest Part Came Last

When enough grain had been fed, it was time to shut off the flow. The opening was easy enough because I just grabbed the hooked handle and let the truck’s momentum pull it open. However, closing the slot was more difficult.

The truck couldn’t stop when the bin was open because the grain would pile out. So I had to run behind on the slippery ground, bend down low and push the stiff handle back in. I usually carried a heavy spanner with me because it was much easier to give the lever a hearty whack and close it that way.

I Get To Drive…

Sometimes I was allocated the driving role. This was tricky too. The sheep mobbed front of the truck too and were in grave danger of being run over. I wasn’t allowed to drive too fast, but too slow was just as bad. If I misjudged the speed the farmer would yell!

Then there was the problem of knowing exactly where in the paddock it was safe to drive the truck. Sometimes the ground looked firm enough, but in reality, a bog lay underneath just waiting for me to fall into its trap.

Trailer wheel stuck in the mud,.
Oh dear! Photo Lyn McNamee

…But Not For Long

Etched forever in my mind, is the day I got the bin stuck not once, not twice, but three times in the same paddock, right outside my brother-in-law’s house. Terry had to pull the truck and bin out each time with the tractor, much to the delight of my audience of three little boys. I learned a few unrepeatable words that day, and exactly where the wet spots were in that particular paddock.

Red Land Rover, hay bale and grain bin.
Our red Land Rover, complete with hay and grain bin, one snowy winter’s day. Photo courtesy of Trevor Baker.

Big Round Bales

Eventually, modern times caught up with us on the farm. We bought a new baler which made big round bales (actually cylindrical in shape.) However we didn’t buy a feed-out machine for another two years, so to feed out we had to unwind the bales by hand.

Loading the round bales was much quicker — the tractor did all the work. But feeding out the hay required a whole new technique.

The bale fitted exactly onto the Land Rover’s deck, which left a toe-hold in each corner for me. I clambered round and round, peeling off swathes of hay, clinging spider-like to the ever-decreasing bale. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall off every single day, but my balance must have improved because I stayed on most of the time.

Moving With The Times

Feeding out changed forever when we bought a brand-new feed-out machine. Now one farmer could handle the whole job alone.

Feeding out was tougher 35 years ago, but for a new-to-the-job farmer’s wife, it was a lot of fun too. I was sad, in a way, to see my role go, but there’s no denying that the whole process is much easier now.

Highland Cattle image is courtesy of Jenny McNamee, of Postcard Puzzles.